At some time or another, you have probably heard the phrase “comparing apples and oranges”. It is often used when someone compares two items that are so different, any such comparison is considered invalid.
While there is no direct origin of the idiom, it can be found in many different forms and languages. In Europe, for example, it is common to compare apples and pears, like in France, where the phrase is “comparer des pommes et des poires”.
Apples and oranges is what stuck in the United States, however, and today, it gets invoked anytime a person tries to compare things thought to be incomparable.
But, this does beg one question – are apples and oranges really that different?
What Does Science Say?
At least two “scientific” studies have been conducted on the subject, and each study seems to support the conclusion that apples and oranges can actually be compared fairly easily. In fact, the two fruits are quite similar.
The first study done on the topic was conducted by Scott A. Sandford of the NASA Ames Research Center. His findings were published in the satirical science magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Sandford produced a spectrograph from dried samples of a granny smith apple and a Sunkist navel orange.
In analyzing the results of his spectrograph, Sandford found that it is quite easy to make a comparison between apples and oranges. He concludes that the “apples and oranges defense should no longer be considered valid.” He goes on to state that his findings will “have a dramatic effect on the strategies used in arguments and discussions in the future.”
A second study was done by James Barone, surgeon-in-chief at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut. Barone had noticed that the phrase “apples and oranges” was popping up more and more in medical literature and elsewhere in the medical community. He decided to conduct a study comparing red delicious apples and navel oranges using various different measurements. His findings were published in the British Medical Journal.
Barone concluded that apples and oranges “appear to have many features in common.” Both apples and oranges are sweet. They are similar in size, weight, and shape. They are both grown in orchards. Both may be eaten or juiced. In fact, with the exception of their color and number of seeds, they really not all that different.
Should We Stop Comparing Apples and Oranges?
Despite the glaring evidence, it seems unlikely that the idiom “comparing apples and oranges” will go away anytime soon. If we’ve learned anything about science over the years, it’s that some people will never want to believe it. Undoubtedly, the phrase will live on.
Still, given the findings of these two highly scientific studies, perhaps it is time we stop focusing on the differences between apples and oranges. Instead, let’s celebrate what they have in common, and allow the two fruits to live apple-y ever after.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.